Joy Ladin says she did not fully understand the psalms until she became a woman.
In rereading the psalms a few years ago, she found a wealth of metaphor for change that gave meaning and spiritual strength to her own transformation from a man to a woman.
The celebrated 51-year-old poet, Yeshiva University professor and first openly transgender person to teach at an Orthodox institution will speak about her work, her books and her journey on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Seven years ago, her decision to transition from male to female drew attention from the press, the LGBT community and Orthodoxy worldwide. Ladin began shedding the skins of an inauthentic life as Jay Ladin, married father of three, in 2005. That spurred her firing, then subsequent rehiring, at Stern College for Women, the flagship institution for Modern Orthodox women’s higher education. Ultimately, it led to connections with other transgender Jews and a wider discussion about understanding and embracing those who buck gender norms.
Some people wanted to turn her into an outcast, but “many, many, many more” did not. In fact, reporters doing an article about her for the New York Post in 2008 (which was headlined “Ye-She-Va: Univ-ersity is rattled by transgender prof”) nearly gave up trying to find a rabbi who would produce a suitably outraged quote.
“The Torah says all human beings are created in the image of God,” Ladin said in a 2011 interview about transgender Judaism seen on YouTube. “That’s a radicalism that’s built into the Torah — that call to respect the humanity of all people.”
As a child, Jay Ladin felt relieved to encounter God, “another loner who didn’t fit in,” she said in an interview for this article. She also said that her former male self felt like he was acting a part, assuming a sort of costume of mannerisms, voice tones and boyish interests.
“The realities of my life, my career, my family seemed like shadows on a distant wall,” she writes in her recently published memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.”
By his 40s, she writes, “There was no relief anymore, no moment when I was unaware of my estrangement from my skin.” Living as a man, “I was the only guard, the only prisoner, the frozen ground and the barbed wire fence. Give up, I told myself. There is no escape.”
But there was an escape, and the path went through Judaism. Ladin said that Hebrew text, at its core, swells with change — dramatic, healing, sometimes terrifying, always necessary. And that compelled Ladin to complete her journey.
“I was always amazed by the imaginative leaping that the psalms could do,” she says in the interview on YouTube. “Changes in perspective, in pronouns, in time and space and imagery seem effortless in the psalms.”
As her gender transition progressed, “I began to see a kind of lack of identity [in the psalms], which is what I’d always experienced when I was presenting myself as a male.”
A former Fulbright scholar, Ladin has taught at Princeton University (where earlier she had earned her Ph.D.), the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Tel Aviv University. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University.
She was a finalist for the 2009 Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry. She wrote six books of poetry from 2003 to 2012, including “Transmigration,” “Coming to Life,” “Psalms” (a book of contemporary psalms) and her most recent, “The Definition of Joy.” She also wrote a critical study, “Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry,” in 2010.
“I really like teaching women-only classes,” she said. “My experience is that young women find it difficult to be participatory in a mixed class. [At Stern], there is an ease they have that contributes to the classroom dynamic.”
The university has encouraged her continued writing, she said. And most of her students are not aware that she was once Jay Ladin.
“It feels good to me to be known as who I am now,” she said.
“Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” a book talk with Joy Ladin. 12 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the Graduate Theological Union, 2465 Le Conte Ave., Berkeley. Free. Information: the GTU’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at (510) 649-2482 or email@example.com.